I’ve been preaching a series of sermons this Advent on “The Gifts of the Child Christ" – meaning, not the gifts which we bring to him, but the gifts which he has brought to us, by his birth and death and resurrection. And on this last Sunday before Christmas, I want to talk about that great gift we have received through him, “the gift of God [which] is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
J.R.R. Tolkien said in his famous essay that Fairy-stories satisfy several of our oldest and deepest desires, one of which is "the oldest and deepest desire, the Great Escape: the Escape from Death." I suppose as greatly as Death has worked upon the mind of humanity, it is natural that it should figure so prominently in all the stories we tell, including Fairy-stories; after all, as Tolkien points out, "Fairy-stories are made by men not by fairies." But then he adds in a rather strange aside, "The Human-stories of the elves are doubtless full of the Escape from Deathlessness." Which seems like a bit of whimsy, until you realize that such stories do exist, but only because Tolkien wrote them.
Well, indeed and indeed, the desire to escape, or solve, or figure out how to handle, Death, is the great human problem. For the one great fact of human life is that as surely as it has a beginning, it also has an end, and this has never sat well with people. A concern for life after death is a thread that runs all through the history of human thought. It shows up in the way Neanderthal people buried their dead, and it shows up in the folk religion of countless others.
Some people – nowadays as much as at any time in the past – think that when we die, we all go on to a spirit world, which is pretty much like this one, as if dying and leaving this life were no different, fundamentally, from selling out here and moving to Detroit. (Although if the afterlife really were like moving to Detroit, the spiritualists had better rethink their idea that everyone goes to a better place.) Meanwhile, lots of people in all ages have been equally concerned with trying to communicate with the dead or with trying to prevent their communicating with us.
The ancient Egyptians were obsessed with life after death, although since most of what we know of their religion is based upon funerary practices (tombs and mummies and such), perhaps we misunderstand them. But in any case, the religion of the ancient Jews was not primarily concerned with life after death; like the religion of the ancient Greeks, they thought that this life was the arena in which important experiences were to be had, and the favor of the divine to be sought. At the same time, the people of ancient Israel thought that the dead were unable to trouble the living, and that attempting to contact them was a wicked thing. God forbade it; Saul attempting to contact the spirit of Samuel was an example of how far gone he was, morally, and how unfit he was to be king any more.
So the religion of the ancient Jews had far less to say about what lies beyond Death than we are used to. God was to be worshiped because he was Good, not because he was thought to bestow life beyond the grave. His benevolence and protection were to be sought for this life, and his people were to count on his faithfulness in so providing them.
But this raises a couple of problems. For one thing, it means the meaning of life is pretty much up to you. If there is nothing after this life, how you live and what you strive for is a coin toss. I mean, you could say that you want to experience everything you can, as much as you can, since every moment not spent doing what you want is a moment you can never have back. And so, "let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” and all that. But then, when you die, all the moments and experiences and, well, stuff you have accumulated are all gone and you can’t take them with you, so what was all that for, anyway?
If there is nothing to judge this life by, if there is no Judge to make the judgment for all, then this life has no obvious purpose. Quoth Macbeth,
Out, out, brief candle!And lest you think that too gloomy a thought, the author of Ecclesiastes, here in the Bible, wrestles with this same problem, trying to find a valid purpose for life. "Vanity of vanities," he says, "all is vanity."
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
And there’s another problem here. Remember, the God of the Bible is the first ethical God to be worshiped in human history: he not only expects us to be good, he holds himself to the same standard. His rewarding goodness and punishing badness is a standard of his goodness. So how can a Good God who has promised to reward the righteous and punish the wicked allow bad things to happen to good people? Or allow bad people to get away with their actions? How can God say he is good, and that he rewards goodness, if in this life the rewards and punishments are so obviously out of whack? Is God a liar? Or is he merely impotent to reward and punish as he has said he will?
Well, the sages of Israel wrestled with this problem, the priests prayed about it, and prophets sought God in visions, and slowly – you can see it happening in the text of the Bible -- an answer began to emerge. Perhaps the righteous could hope for something beyond this life – and perhaps the wicked had something to fear, as well.
The God of Abraham would gather his people to himself, and his covenant faithfulness would extend beyond this life. And the breadth of God’s judgment would reach to every person and every action, no matter how small. Nor would death provide an escape: for all would stand before the judgment seat of God, the righteous to be rewarded and the wicked to be punished.
But the Jews were not like the ancient Greeks, to see the judgment of God in the same way as that of Minos, Aeacus, and Rhadamanthus – the judges of the Greek Underworld. No, God was a God of Life. Not only that, but the Jews felt that there was something unnatural about a human spirit divorced from a human body. If God really is going to judge the living and the dead, the great and the small, then it would not be his way to merely judge the spirits of the dead; in order for God to demonstrate his own goodness and faithfulness, he would have to call all the dead back to life – in the body – to answer for their lives. And so, the first whispers of Resurrection began to be shared.
The Day of Judgment will be a Day of the Restoration of All things, of a new heaven and a new earth, of the undoing of death. Which will necessarily mean the ending of this world, the finishing of all its business. So they awaited the coming of God’s Messiah, who would bring the judgment and the resurrection – the end of this world and the beginning of a new one.
That is what we celebrate when we celebrate Christmas: the coming of our Judge and our Deliverer, the one who brings in the promised new age, the age in which Death no longer has dominion over us; the age when time and eternity will be reconciled and change will no longer be our enemy, an age of complete fulfillment -- not just another world, but the perfection of worlds, not just another age, but “the age of ages.” Which is how the Jews discussed eternity. For them, eternity was not endless time, but something beyond time. The expression in the New Testament that we translate as “forever” or “eternally” literally means “unto the age of ages” – eis twn aiwn twn aiwniwn.
And so “eternal life,” which is the gift of God in Christ Jesus, is something greater than “life after death,” or even “endless serial living.” It means the fullness of life, life lived as God lives it, in eternity. It means becoming native to that kingdom that is to come; it means becoming as God.
We still look forward to the coming of that kingdom, that world, that age. We pray for it earnestly. And we live our lives so as to prepare for it, to be found worthy of it. It gives meaning to our lives. And it answers old questions that have nagged us throughout our history.
In the year 627, King Edwin of Northumbria wanted to convert to Christianity, but he sought the advice of his council of wise men before allowing the missionary Paulinus to preach in his kingdom. Now, if the king wanted to be a Christian, that was his private affair, but to allow missionaries into the kingdom was a public concern. And the decision to allow Paulinus to preach was greatly influenced by an unnamed nobleman, known to us only as the ealdormann of Northumbria. The historian Bede preserves his speech at the council, where he said,
It seems to me, O king, that this present life of man on earth, when compared to that which is unknown to us, is like when you sit in your hall at wintertide amidst your nobles and officers, warming yourself by the fire, while outside it rains and snows and storms. Suddenly, a sparrow flies in through the doors and rests for a moment on the rafters before quickly flying out again into the dark. Our life is like that sparrow, which rests for a moment in the light and warmth of the hall. But where it comes from, or where it goes, we do not know. So if this man’s teaching can tell us anything more certain about what comes before, or what follows after, our life, then it is certainly worth following.The teaching of Christ -- the more certain knowledge of life and death and the hope of life beyond death -- “is certainly worth following.” In that same essay by Tolkien that I began this sermon with, he also says of the gospel, There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many sceptical men have accepted as true on its own merits . . .
And more than that. Eternal life begins now. We do not have to wait for God to unmake the world to know the life of the world to come. Nor do we have to wait for our death – for our old life to end – to know the life of the age of ages. It begins now, when we entrust our lives to Jesus Christ.
This is why we say that we have been “born again,” which means that that new life is already stirring within us and growing, that new life which can never die. The promise is given in our baptism and we are fed at Christ’s own table every time we gather around it. The evil we have done is forgiven. The good we do is strengthened. And we begin to know the love and peace of God, who has made us his children. We live in the strength and fellowship of Christ, and when we die, we go forth to the embrace of Christ and the joys of heaven.
But we do not forget that there is a heaven beyond heaven, just as there is a world beyond this world. And we await the resurrection and the life everlasting in which all God’s promises shall be fulfilled. This is the Blessed Hope of Christian teaching. This is the gift of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. And best of all, the gift has your name on it. Do not fail to open it, and give your thanks to him who has come to share it with you. Amen.